Jennifer Schwein taught kindergarten for 14 years in Riverview Community School District, where she earned an “effective” rating on every year-end evaluation she received. Yet she was pink-slipped in 2015 ahead of others—including a less experienced teacher who also scored “effective” but with lower numeric scores.
Schwein, 51, still has not been recalled to a full-time position—even though she was qualified and certified for several elementary teaching positions filled since her layoff. Instead, she was offered part-time positions at the hourly pay rate for paraeducators—$10 an hour.
Since her layoff, among other openings she was qualified to fill, a first-year teacher was hired for a first-grade teaching job—and a vacant third grade teaching position was taken by a sister of one of the district’s administrators.
“It’s just not fair,” Schwein said.
In a federal lawsuit MEA is filing on Schwein’s behalf, MEA lawyers contend the district’s interpretation of Michigan’s Teachers’ Tenure Act represents an unconstitutional infringement of teachers’ rights. Tenure is a property right that MEA lawyers contend the state and school districts can’t take away through legislative changes or their application.
“A tenured teacher has a right to be ‘employed continuously by the controlling board’ under the Teachers’ Tenure Act, and we believe that creates a federal contractual right that can’t be impaired by the state or the district,” said MEA General Counsel Mike Shoudy.
“Additionally, the failure to recall Ms. Schwein to the vacant positions that she is certified and qualified to hold amounts to a de facto discharge without due process of law,” Shoudy contends.
Changes to Michigan’s tenure law in 2011 mandated that length of service or tenure status could not be the primary determining factor in school personnel decisions. School district policies for hiring, layoffs, and recalls must be based on retaining effective teachers, under the law.
The law contains provisions for taking away a teacher’s tenure, but some districts are ignoring those procedures and using the evaluation law to layoff tenured teachers—while subverting the protections of the Teachers’ Tenure Act—and refusing to recall effective teachers like Schwein to vacant positions. “It’s wrong, and we are going to try to do something about it,” Shoudy said.
“We are filing this federal complaint to challenge the state law and how districts have been applying it. Districts have been using the law in ways that create fear and distrust for our members.”
Other states have followed the same path as Michigan in attempting to weaken teacher tenure by connecting layoffs and recalls more closely to evaluations. In 2015, a federal judge in Indiana ruled portions of that state’s revisions to its tenure law unconstitutional.
When the Riverview district in southwestern Wayne County laid off Schwein, parents and grown former students turned out to support her at a school board meeting to no effect, she said. She has since worked as a substitute teacher, but the emotional and financial effects of her layoff have been devastating.
“My son was with me when I signed up for unemployment, and it was very emotional for me because I’d never had to do that before,” said Schwein, a married mother of one 13-year-old boy.
Foremost, she wanted to participate in the lawsuit in defense of her own reputation as a strong educator, she said. But she also hoped to be a voice for teachers too frightened to speak up about issues because their administrators wield evaluations and layoffs like a club to silence people.
“Win or lose, at least I tried to do something about it,” she said.